Testosterone in men is often associated with sowing wild oats rather than taking care of babies, but a new study finds that in some situations, hearing an infant's cry can actually boost this sex hormone in men.
The findings highlight the complex interplay between hormones, behavior, and our perception of situations, said study researcher Sari van Anders, a behavioral neuroendocrinologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
"Hormones and behavior are linked in dynamic and complex ways, more complex than we often think," van Anders told LiveScience. “Hormones can change depending on the context, and our behaviors and perceptions can even affect these endocrine responses. So even the same situation can elicit different patterns of hormonal responses depending on how people behave or perceive the situation.”
In other research, van Anders has found that surging testosterone doesn't necessarily mean an increase in stereotypically masculine behaviors. In young men, for example, she found that individuals with higher testosterone levels have stronger acceptance of safe sex, despite stereotypes that such men would be sexual risk-takers.
The ups and downs of testosterone
Both human and animal research, however, has linked parenting to lowered testosterone levels in men; a few outlier studies have found that the sound of babies crying increases, rather than decreases, male testosterone.
"This completely contradicts theory and the larger body of evidence," van Anders said.
The discrepancy got van Anders and her colleagues thinking. After all, van Anders said, "parenting" is a broad behavioral umbrella: You can cuddle your children, or discipline them, or protect them from harm. Perhaps different contexts and behaviors would yield different hormonal effects. [History's 12 Most Doting Dads]
So the researchers set up an experiment using interactive lifelike baby-dolls of the sort often used to teach high-school students about the responsibilities of parenthood. The dolls can make a variety of noises, including loud crying. The only way to stop the crying is to swipe a sensor bracelet on the doll and then to comfort it as you would a real baby.
Fifty-five men, mostly college-age, came to the lab one-by-one to try their hand at calming down these animatronic infants. Before they began, the men provided saliva samples for testosterone measurements, and also answered questions about their mood. Next, they were assigned to one of four groups. Some of the men simply sat quietly, leafing through a book of photography, before giving a second saliva sample and heading home. These men were the control group.
The other three groups all experienced a short stint with an upset baby-doll, programmed to cry with increasing intensity for about eight minutes. Some of the men were given the sensor and told to comfort the baby. Others were told to comfort the baby, but were not given the sensor, so their efforts were doomed to fail. Men in the third group only heard the baby cries via recording, and had no chance to stop the wailing.
The dolls "are so realistic, they can be almost kind of creepy when you first realize they’re not real, but it's really quite amazing how invested people do get", van Anders said. "They really, really want to help the baby calm down. It's sort of hard to believe if you've never seen it.
Babies and hormones
After their attempts to calm the baby-dolls, the men provided a second saliva sample so that researchers could measure changes in their testosterone over the experiment. The results confirmed van Anders' suspicion that different situations would have different hormonal effects. The men who comforted the babies unsuccessfully saw no testosterone changes. But men who got to soothe the crying doll saw their testosterone levels drop by 10 percent. Those who only heard the cries and couldn't respond, on the other hand, experienced 20 percent increases in their testosterone levels.
According to van Anders, the opposing hormonal changes could be linked to different parenting behaviors.
"Hearing an increasingly upset baby, with shrieking cries that are rising, without being able to provide a nurturant response might cue a danger or emergency physiological response for infant protection," she said. That could spur a flood of testosterone, as theories have linked higher testosterone to just this type of "I will protect you" behavior. Meanwhile, the nurturing men were busy providing close and warm care, potentially stimulating a drop in testosterone. Men whose self-reports of nurturing behavior and contact increased after the experiment experienced more of a decrease in testosterone, the researchers report in an upcoming issue of the journal Hormones and Behavior.
Most of the men in the study were young and non-parents, van Anders said, so more research is needed to understand how the testosterone changes might vary with age or among people who have children of their own. While the baby-dolls are not real infants, they do seem to trigger the appropriate hormonal responses as well as appropriate behaviors, she said. That's good news for scientists, as an experiment like this one would be impossible to pull off with a real baby. The researchers are now working to publish a similar experiment with female participants.
"I think these data can help to expand our ideas about parenting and sort of throw a little wrench into our simplified perception of testosterone and parenting," van Anders said. "High testosterone can be linked to certain aspects of parenting or infant-related responses."
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.